I recently watched the movie Love and Other Drugs, a romantic comedy based on Jamie Reidy's memoir, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman.
While I thought the film was a mixed bag, it did have a down-to-earth kind of love story that wasn’t your typical movie romance or a common Hollywood storyline: young and beautiful Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) has an incurable degenerative illness—Parkinson’s disease. That sort of made up for the parts that I didn’t enjoy, because in real life, in the real world, in real relationships, things like that happen.
A few weeks earlier I had listened to a heartrending interview with Toben Heim, who has coauthored several books with his wife, Joanne, including Happily Ever After: A Real-Life Look at Your First Year of Marriage. He has also solo-authored several other books, and he and Ryan Dobson coauthored Wrecked: What God Can Do When Things Crash and Burn.
In the interview, Toben talked about his deepening commitment to his marriage in the wake of Joanne’s recent massive stroke, which has left her paralyzed, unable to speak, and in terrible physical, mental, and emotional pain. It was very touching to hear him explain how it has affected their and their children’s lives, as well as how it has strengthened his love for his wife and his faith in God’s promises.
I also recently read excerpts of an interview with Laura Hillenbrand, the best-selling author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend. She’s known for her animated storytelling and powerful characters, but she herself has been practically bedridden for decades, suffering from a severe and debilitating disease. Often she doesn’t even have the strength to talk or to roll over in bed.
When the interviewer asked how she manages, Hillenbrand gave much of the credit to her husband—her “college sweetheart.” She explained, “[When we got married] I was too sick to go to the reception and was at the wedding for only a few minutes. He has been through this with me. Some couples it would drive apart; it has drawn us together. We have a deep understanding. He doesn’t see me as a sick person. He sees me as everything else I am. We had to learn how to do it. It’s not easy at all to be a couple with a disease.”
As I read her touching account and thought about what a saint of a guy she must be married to, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own situation and everything that my saintly wife, Kristina, has selflessly put up with year after year. And it’s not just my regular migraines and other ongoing illnesses that she’s had to help me endure. Those have greatly affected her life for sure, but she has also gracefully survived everything else about me, as well—things that I personally would have had a very hard time putting up with if I were in her shoes.
I think it could be said that most of us are afflicted in one way or another. The truth is that making any relationship work isn’t easy. We all have weaknesses and ongoing problems that require a limitless supply of sacrificial, unconditional love and forgiveness from our partner. I know I do! I don’t know how Kristina has managed to put up with me all these years, but she has. I admire her for that, and I thank God for her. She’s a saint for sure!
I also listened to another very touching interview—this one with bestselling author Joni Eareckson Tada and her husband Ken. Joni (pronounced Johnny) is a long-time quadriplegic who now also has breast cancer. It was such a moving testimony of faith and marital devotion that I haven’t been able to forget it. Coping with cancer and the ensuing, debilitating medical treatments is of course difficult for anyone, but the particular challenges that it presents for Joni and Ken are especially so. The interview was intended to inform and update Joni’s public about her cancer and to ask for prayer for her and Ken, but over the course of the interview it became much more than that—a beautiful and amazing love story.
As I listened, I was moved to tears, not just by the struggles that this amazing woman has faced, but even more by the profound love that was reflected in her husband’s trembling voice as he explained how difficult it has been for him to see Joni in such extreme pain, as well as how it has brought them even closer together and caused them to be even more in love.
Joni said, “It’s quite wonderful—when you’re going through the worst of it and it’s just a nightmare—to have someone standing by you. The other night I was in such pain, and I prayed right before I went to bed, ‘Oh, Lord Jesus, would You please show up tonight? Let me see You and feel You. Let me know You’re with me. You’ve promised that You will never leave or forsake me. Let me sense that tonight.’
“Well, sure enough, I had to wake Ken up to help me, and as he was standing there in the dim light of the bedside lamp, I said, ‘You’re Him! You’re Jesus! Ken, I feel Him in your touch, I see Him in your face, in your smile. [I hear Him] in the tone of your voice.’ It was the sweetest thing to feel the presence of Jesus through my husband.”
I can totally relate to what Joni was saying. Thankfully, I’ve never had to go through the kinds of things that she has so bravely lived with since being paralyzed in a diving accident decades ago, but those close to me know that I have multiple health problems and am often hurting. At times I’ve been so sick or in such pain that I couldn’t even think or talk. I’m sure that those with ongoing health problems can relate.
But even in the most difficult times, Jesus has always been there with me, to soothe, comfort, and ultimately heal me. And more times than I can count, it has been Kristina who has been Jesus to me through her tender care, unending patience, resilient endurance, and unconditional love. That’s just the way she is. Like Joanne Heim’s husband, Laura Hillenbrand’s husband, Joni Eareckson Tada’s husband, and many, many other husbands and wives the world has never heard of, my wife sticks with me through thick and thin, in sickness and in health.
Of course, there isn’t always someone like that around. Even in those times, though, Jesus is always there. He sees our needs, is touched by our weaknesses,1 and never fails to see us through the darkest nights. Even when we don’t appreciate Him as we should, He remains faithfully by our side. No matter what happens, He’s always there.
But when there is someone else in your life—a spouse or relative or close friend—someone who willingly chooses to be there for you no matter what you’re going through, someone who doesn’t see you as a sick person or a mess but as everything else that you are or could yet become, it’s an amazing, wonderful thing, almost too good to be true.
May we each live sacrificially, selflessly, lovingly, day in and day out, being Jesus to others God has put in our lives—“for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.”